Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Hill, Archibald Vivianlocked

  • Bernard Katz
  • , revised by V. M. Quirke

Archibald Vivian Hill (1886–1977)

by Hubert Andrew Freeth, 1957

by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge

Hill, Archibald Vivian (1886–1977), physiologist, was born on 26 September 1886 at Bristol, the only son and elder child of Jonathan Hill (d. 1924), timber merchant, and his wife, Ada Priscilla (d. 1943), daughter of Alfred Jones Rumney, wool merchant. His father left the family when his son was three. Hill was educated at Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon, from 1900 to 1905, obtaining a foundation scholarship in 1901. In 1905 he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1907 finished as third wrangler in the Cambridge mathematical tripos. He then decided—under the influence of Walter Morley Fletcher and Frederick Gowland Hopkins—to turn to physiology. In 1909 Hill took a first in part two of the natural sciences tripos and started his life's work as a research worker in the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory under the direction of J. N. Langley. He had obtained a George Henry Lewes studentship and in 1910 was elected a research fellow of Trinity College, a position he held until 1916, when he accepted a fellowship at King's, Cambridge.

During the years preceding the First World War Hill's activities were of two kinds: his first published papers were concerned mainly with a theoretical and quantitative analysis of experimental results obtained by himself and his senior colleagues in the Cambridge laboratory. They included an analysis of drug action in muscle tissue, of the reaction between oxygen and haemoglobin, and of the effects of electric stimuli on nerves. Although Hill later regarded this work as being of little importance, it contained the first mathematical formulation of drug kinetics later generally known as the Michaelis–Menten or Langmuir equation. It also introduced the concept of co-operativity in complex chemical reactions, signified by a quantity which was widely referred to as the Hill coefficient.

From 1910 onwards Hill's main efforts were devoted to measurements of heat production and energy exchanges in nerve and muscle. He soon established himself as the international leader in this field and attracted pupils from many countries. He excelled in designing new thermoelectric methods for his experiments, using them to carry out very precise measurements of physical changes associated with muscular contraction and impulse conduction in nerves. He also excelled in the mathematical treatment of his results. By applying physico-chemical concepts to biological events, and by emphasizing the importance of accurate quantitative measurement, Hill greatly promoted a branch of physiology known as biophysics. Together with his famous forerunner Hermann Helmholtz in Germany, Hill is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the discipline. In 1913 Hill married Margaret Neville (d. 1970), daughter of Dr (John) Neville Keynes, registrary in the University of Cambridge and lecturer in moral science, and of Florence Ada Keynes, and sister of John Maynard Keynes, the economist, and Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the surgeon and author. The couple had four children, including the pioneering economic anthropologist Mary Eglantyne (Polly) Hill.

On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 Hill joined the army and his physiological research was interrupted until demobilization in March 1919. He entered the Cambridgeshire regiment as a regimental captain, but was soon asked to form and direct an anti-aircraft experimental section in the munitions inventions department. Hill assembled a distinguished group of scientists, including R. H. Fowler and E. A. Milne, who engaged in what was later called operational research. Hill was promoted to the rank of brevet major; in 1918 he was appointed OBE. The work of his anti-aircraft section was later incorporated in important textbooks (for example, Textbook of Anti-Aircraft Gunnery, 2 vols., 1924–5).

In 1918 Hill was elected FRS and in 1919 he returned to his researches on muscle in the Cambridge laboratory. He analysed the various phases of heat production during muscular contraction, and their relation to the development of muscle force and to the chemical changes associated with the active phase of contraction and the period of recovery thereafter.

In 1920 Hill left Cambridge to take the chair of physiology at Manchester University. He reorganized the teaching department and intensified his research on muscular movement, working with human beings as well as with isolated frog muscles. Hill's measurements of the various phases of heat production during muscle activity and recovery paralleled biochemical studies carried out at the same time by the German physiologist Otto Meyerhof. They led to the concept that the initial phase of activity and the development of muscle force did not require oxygen, but was accompanied by anaerobic breakdown of carbohydrate to lactic acid; the subsequent phase of chemical recovery and restoration, however, did depend on oxygen consumption and on the oxidative removal of a small portion of the lactic acid molecules. The impact of Hill's innovative biophysical technique and results, which converged with those of an outstanding German scientist, was considerable. It threw new light on an important biological process: the production of mechanical work by a cycle of chemical reactions in a living muscle cell. It led to early recognition by the award in 1923 of a Nobel prize to Hill and Meyerhof (the prize was dated 1922).

In 1923 Hill succeeded E. H. Starling in the chair of physiology at University College, London (UCL). Three years later he transferred from this post to the Foulerton research professorship of the Royal Society, a post he held at UCL until his retirement in December 1951. After that time, although formally retired, he continued as an active experimenter until 1966. His many scientific achievements during this period include the discovery and measurement of the heat production associated with the nerve impulse, the improved analysis of heat development which accompanies active shortening in muscle, the application of thermoelectric methods to the measurement of vapour pressure in minute fluid volumes, the analysis of physical and chemical changes associated with nerve excitation, and the formulation of electric excitation laws. Hill was also the author of several important books, some on his special scientific subjects (for example, Adventures in Biophysics, 1931, Chemical Wave Transmission in Nerve, 1932, and Trails and Trials in Physiology, 1965), and others on more general subjects (for example, The Ethical Dilemma of Science, 1960).

Hill combined his intensive personal research work in the laboratory with a remarkable life given to public service. He gave many years of service to the British Physiological Society as editor of its journal and as foreign secretary, and to the International Union of Physiology. He served as biological secretary of the Royal Society from 1935 to 1945, and as foreign secretary in 1945–6. He was also secretary-general of the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952–6. Before the war, in 1935, Hill joined Patrick Blackett and Sir Henry Tizard on the committee which was responsible for the initiation of radar and for the early development of an effective air warning system. During the Second World War he was an independent MP for Cambridge University (1940–45), went on important missions to the United States, and in 1943–4 visited India to advise the Indian government on post-war reconstruction. He furnished a very influential report, dealing especially with the subject of medical education. But one of Hill's most important contributions was his defence of colleagues who had been persecuted by the Hitler regime. He was a founder member of the Academic Assistance Council (later the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning). Before 1939 and later, as an MP, he intervened in favour of fellow scientists in distress. For this he earned the gratitude and admiration of colleagues all over the world. He was always ready to encourage younger colleagues and imparted to them his sense of fairness. During this period, Margaret Hill was very active in social welfare work, especially in organizing sheltered housing for old people during and after the war. Hill died on 3 June 1977 in Cambridge.


  • B. Katz, Memoirs FRS, 24 (1978), 71–149
  • personal knowledge (1986)
  • The Times (4 June 1977)
  • WWW, 1971–80


  • CAC Cam., corresp. and papers
  • Medical Research Council, London, corresp. and papers
  • Wellcome L., corresp.
  • CUL, corresp. with Francis John Worsley Roughton
  • ICL, corresp. with Herbert Dingle
  • IWM, corresp., mainly with Sir Henry Tizard
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Henry Dale, CAB127/218
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Esther Simpson
  • UCL, letters to Karl Pearson
  • University of Sheffield, corresp. with Hans Krebs
  • Wellcome L., corresp. with Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer


  • W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1933–42, NPG
  • H. A. Freeth, watercolour drawing, 1957, King's Cam. [see illus.]
  • H. A. Freeth, watercolour drawing, 1957, NPG

Wealth at Death

£27,994: probate, 11 Aug 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society